Our Daily Dread: The latest sports newspaper obit, by Frank “Nobody Knows The Troubles I’ve Seen” Deford

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Frank Deford is leaning on a newspaper street rack — one that has an issue of the old National Sports Daily in the window. It must be in Deford’s den, since that piece of equipment hasn’t been seen in years.

Deford, the esteemed Sports Illustrated writer, author and Clark Gable look-alike, was the editor of the publication that lasted just 18 months in the early ’90s. It was a fantastic attempt at a daily sports-only newspaper, with some of the top writers in the country belching out some of the most thought provoking and elegant prose you’d want to see this business produce.

Then, it bleeded out, red in debt (losing $150 million). Those of us in sports journalism suffered a blow to the stomach as well. We wanted it to live. We wanted a beacon, a daily reference.

But then came the last 10 years. Particularily the last three. The punching we’ve been taking to the gut, jaw, knees and throat is more personal.

Yet, Deford continues to lick his wounds from 1991.

“No one knows the difficulties that newspapers face better than I,” Deford says to open a piece that will air on tonight’s episode of HBO’s “Real Sports” (starts at 10 p.m., with several repeats).

Wait, is that even proper grammar? Go to that Internet thing, a site called WordQuery.com (linked here) for this explanation:

Q: Is it correct to say “better than I” or “better than me”? Is “better than I” more suitable for formal writing?

A: Because “than” is a preposition as well as a conjunction, either construction is technically possible. However “better than I,” where “than” is classed as a conjunction, sounds old-fashioned and formal: the fuller form “better than I am” is more acceptable. The form “better than me,” where “than” is classed as a preposition, is much more common nowadays and the norm in conversation and informal writing (You’re better at it than me). It is still frowned upon sometimes in formal writing, where “You’re better at it than I am” is preferred.

So there you go. When you need immediate information, you don’t wait for someone to throw it up on your driveway tomorrow. You seek it out now. Ten minutes from now is 11 minutes too late. The Internet is our driving information force, source and resource.

And there’s the essence of Deford’s piece — even though he really didn’t have anything to do with the fact the paper that he edited folded. The product was fantastic; the distribution was the downfall. Money killed it.

If only the Internet existed back then. A “National” website could have looked like what today’s Sporting News has evolved into (linked here).

We digress …. again.

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In the story called “Paper Cuts,” Deford examines the state of today’s sports newspaper sections. Unfortunately, he lets Jay Mariotti start the reporting.

Mariotti, one of the better known gas bags on parade on ESPN’s “Around the Horn,” had a spectacular departure from the Chicago Sun-Times a few months ago, upon returning from covering the 2008 Beijing Olympics and declaring that he was being asked to write fiction just to meet deadlines.

“Print is dead; sports writing is not dead,” proclaims Mariotti, now writing for AOL Fahouse. “Sports writing is moving to the internet. It’s how it’s disseminated.”

Of course, JM. If sports writing was dead, you’d be out of a job.

“Jay Mariotti saw the writing on the wall … and fled to AOL,” Deford reports.

Fled, more or less. Flamboyantly burned bridges as he did so, and ran from it like a squeeling teenaged girl, more accurately.

Deford makes better use of Kansas City Star columnist Joe Posnanski as the anti-Mariotti in this discussion. Posnanski added writing for Sports Illustrated to his Star duties in 2008, and earlier this year, became fulltime at SI, while occasionally doing Star pieces and write blogs (linked here) on his website.

Posnanski contends that sports newspaper writers are still “the most original source” of producing information, rather than just opinions, analysis and self-published jibber-jabber. He must include magazine writers under the same umbrella, being on them (linked here).

Deford also points out that if newspapers go away, “the biggest loss of all could be the disappearance of sports media’s role as a watchdog over the ever-growing sports industry.”

Now you’re in my wheelhouse. Although, as we’re proving here, media watchdogging can be done on blogs, by trained journalists, just as well as by those who own a remote control and watch far more things on TV these days just so they have a YouTube clip to fall back on and post a blog about.

San Francisco Chronicle editor Phil Bronstein (the former Mr. Sharon Stone) is also included in the HBO piece, talking about how his newspaper broke open the BALCO story, with reporters Mark Fainaru-Wada and Lance Williams taking two years of their careers and millions of dollars in resources to pull it off.

If newspapers disappeared, would anyone even know about BALCO? That’s scary.

ESPN’s John Walsh talks more about the new ESPN city websites that are cropping up to fill the void, and voice, of local sports news coverage.

“If this helps newspapers become more thoughtful and thinking more about what’s right for their audience, it’s a win for everybody,” says Walsh, whose ESPNLosAngeles.com will launch next spring.

This won’t help newspapers. It’ll only help bury them more.

Deford has some closing pontifications he makes somehow without holding a glass of Cognac and a Cuban cigar, and then the piece disappears from the TV screen. Mariotti makes the closing argument for Internet over newspapers:

“Keep (newspapers) around for Frank Deford then. … But 80 to 90 percent of your mission has to be the Internet. And keep this (newspaper) around (for the) auxiliary people on the train, people in the john, people at the ballgame, people– there is always going to be a place for (the newspaper). But it’s gotta be minimal in the future.”

Moving on other other stuff …

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So what did we learn here?

Unfortuntatly, not much, especially from an investigative source such as HBO. Maybe they didn’t read enough newspaper clips on the subject to form enough of an opinion. Perhaps they don’t want to offer newsaper sports sections a bail-out plan — then more writers will find themselves unemployed and HBO will have better-quality pencil-sellers to try to lure into their tent.

The next “print is dead” story won’t be the last. TV didn’t kill it. Radio didn’t kill it. Somehow, the Internet, which distributes information from the newspaper at a rate far greater than a kid on a bike ever could, is now the ironic culprit. Why/ Does anyone have a business plan for Internet sports delivery? Where is it?

(He wrote, as he clicked over to adjust the volume on the audio stream of the sports talk radio show he was listening to through his computer speakers, making the radio nearby virtually useless as well).

Deford …. where do we start. He can throw some celebrity weight into this discussion, but lately his juice is questionable (story linked here), and frankly, Frank, you’re starting to sound more and more like you’re auditioning for when Andy Rooney (linked here) finally stops mailing it in.

In our search for what’s news in all this news, we find little to freshen up an otherwise rehashed angle. It’s almost as distressing as watching “60 Minutes” do a piece on how sad it is that “Guiding Light” is disappearing from TV in light of reality-show judge taking over the time slots, but then we must ask: Are our lives any better or worse without them?

Without sports newspapers, life is not better. It’s that simple. We don’t want to print this blog piece out and read it on the john, as Mariotti suggested.

It reminds me of a line Keith Olbermann once told me: “Can you take it to the can? The newspaper, you can. The Internet, you can’t.”

Unless you have a laptop on your lap and are surfing while you’re sh… We won’t even go there.

I ran through a piece in the New York Observer last month (linked here) that only reinforced what we’ve been seeing — the general sports columnist, the face and voice of the sports section, has been seen as something that the publication can’t afford.

“That thoughtful, reflective, reported opinion that we used to see has basically vanished,” says Selena Roberts, a writer with Sports Illustrated and a Times columnist from 2002 to 2007. “This leaves the reader, especially since the reader is going to the Web for the analysts’ point of view, with a shallower perspective of what’s going on.”

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This isn’t to slam more on Internet bloggers, which I’m pleased to join in discussion. It’s just another moment to stop and see how far we’ve buried ourselves with our own short-sightedness. We don’t adminster media payrolls, so we speak only from the other side of things. If positions were switched, we’d have likely killed someone like us off months ago.

If not me, then why him? If not him, why her?

Thank you, may I have another wack with the wooden paddle.

Stories like the one Deford will present tonight don’t shed much light on a subject that needs far more examination in the generousity of an eight-minute segment. Ironically, it’s Internet discussion, a give-and-take of ideas and thinking outside the fold, that will likely produce the best and greatest short- and long-term solution.

Until then, we ponder what George Vecsey has to say from that Observed story, when at the age of 70, he says: “I wouldn’t want to get really old in this business. It’s a young person’s business. People younger than me should be in their prime and doing this. (But) who’s going to be the next Selena Roberts? The next Bob Lipsyte? The next Dave Anderson?”

Who?

Read this blog entry I posted back in May, and let’s see if that sheds any more light (linked here).

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